A new image from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope offers a rare view of an imminent collision between the cores of two merging galaxies, each powered by a black hole with millions of times the mass of the sun
The galactic cores are in a single, tangled galaxy called NGC 6240, located 400-million light years away in the constellation Ophiuchus. Millions of years ago, each core was the dense center of its own galaxy before the two galaxies collided and ripped each other apart. Now, these cores are approaching each other at tremendous speeds and preparing for the final cataclysmic collision. They will crash into each other in a few million years, a relatively short period on a galactic timescale.
The spectacular image combines visible light from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and infrared light from Spitzer. It catches the two galaxies during a rare, short-lived phase of their evolution, when both cores of the interacting galaxies are still visible but closing in on each other fast.
“One of the most exciting things about the image is that this object is unique,” said Stephanie Bush of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Cambridge, Mass., lead author of a new paper describing the observation in an upcoming issue of the Astrophysical Journal. “Merging is a quick process, especially when you get to the train wreck that is happening. There just aren’t many galactic mergers at this stage in the nearby universe.”